Thursday, September 10, 2015

India in the monsoon

I've been fortunate to be in the same writing group as my guest, Sujata Massey - and what a benefit it's been to Michael and me.  Her comments and insights and suggestions have been invaluable.

Sujata, born in England to German and Indian parents, is the author of the delightful Rei Shimura series, the last of which, the eleventh by my count, Kizuna Coast, takes place in the aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami. 

Recently Sujata has shifted her focus and wrote a rag-to-riches story, The Sleeping Dictionary set in the mid-1900s, which tells of a young peasant girl trying to achieve independence both for herself and for her country.  It gives readers a great insight into an Indian mind while India was striving to free itself from Britain.

The Ayah's Tale is a novella also set in the mid-1900s in which an Indian woman picks up a book written by an English war hero and writer, who was a young boy she cared for when she was an ayah (nanny).  Holding the book in her hand brings back a flood of memories.

And coming out in November is the latest of Sujata's Indian novels - this one titled India Gray, which is a poignant adventure set on the 1945 battlefront of Assam.

If you've not read Sujata's works, I recommend them highly.  

Stan - Thursday

My plan to visit India this past July through August struck most of the friends, relatives and seasoned travellers I knew as dubious.

Unless you’re staying in the cool hill country, summer in India is either hot and hellishly dry in the northwest (New Delhi, which I have experienced twice in such conditions), or hot and wet (Mumbai, Kolkata and the rest of the country). As I planned my trip in May, I tried not to react to news stories about “India’s worst heat-wave in recorded history,” which had caused the deaths of more than a thousand. This year, India had its highest recorded summer temperature—44 Celsius, or 117 Fahrenheit degrees.

But India’s summer actually ends in June or July, depending on the state you’re in. What comes straight afterward is monsoon, for periods as short as two months or long as five.

India’s rainy season sweeps upwards from the Indian Ocean into Kerala in early June, continuing a northward deluge. In mid-July, a second monsoon system rolls across the Bay of Bengal and into upper northeast India. Because I needed to visit five cities in India, it seemed an irresistible to do it once through the blur of raindrops. I was tired of reading about monsoons, but not really knowing what the atmospheric power felt like. I was also interested in the way life changed, beyond the use of umbrellas. Bollywood movies present the rainy season as a very romantic time, as shown below in a still from the film Monsoon Wedding.

We arrived at 3 a.m. in Kochi (formerly known as Cochin,) a port city in Kerala, and were quickly wetted in a search for the waiting hotel van. It rained until shortly after lunch, when we departed our hotel for a long ride into rubber tree country. On cue, the rain stopped and people strolled the streets, making Sunday afternoon visits with umbrellas tucked under their arms. Riding through twisting small-town lanes lined with emerald-green bushes and tall grasses, I couldn’t imagine a better definition of verdant, until we got on the mountain roads, passing groves of trees and waterfalls.

Kerala is best-known for its interconnected lakes and canals called The Backwaters; 300 miles of water. Of course, one would want to be by the water in the rainy season. From our small resort in the hamlet of Punamadda, we risked bad weather and committed to a four-hour boat journey on an overcast day. When it began to raining after two hours, the sound was like music on the roof of the canopy covering our kettuvallam.

And there were a lot of people out used to getting wet, such as the gigantic band of guys training in the Backwaters for the upcoming national snakeboat racing competition.

After Kerala’s cool, rainy relaxation of Kerala, I didn’t expect much rain in Udaipur, Rajasthan, where monsoon was said to have limited powers. Upon arrival in mid-July, the air was hot and heavy, and the cabbie confirmed there had been just a few scattered showers to date. But just as we were schlepping ourselves from reception at the Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel, lightening cracked the sky, thunder boomed, and the heavens opened.           

I was soaked after going at top speed through the palace courtyard in the picture, but was enchanted once we reached our suite, got onto the covered balcony and saw the rain pounding Lake Pichola. Then the sky filled with flocks of birds—thousands of them—huge and active. It was like a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds. The next day, a local explained that they hadn’t been birds but bats celebrating the onset of the monsoon. Fortunately, they flew for us the next evening as well. But the only time we got close to them was when they slept the day away in the big, sprawling trees of Udaipur. 

Whilst in Udaipur, we read in the news that the other monsoon had swept up from the Indian Ocean into the Bay of Bengal and Kolkata. We touched down ourselves a week later and learned what a heavy monsoon felt like in a city: an obstruction that you ran from, rather than a heavenly show. However, a day of rain was an an excellent excuse for shopping and movies in a city that provides both in abundance. At the rainy days continued in Calcutta, I caught more of the rhythms of monsoon living. People were fearful of a higher risk of viruses and diseases, given the side effects of flooding on produce and the water supply. 

During monsoon, many Indians avoid street food and raw produce. However, the moisture in the air makes it a more favorable time for Ayurvedic treatment, something I’d begun in Kerala. I was intrigued to learn that the fenugreek powder sprinkled on my head after my massage and oil treatments was done to prevent my catching cold. Masala chai and ginger tea are favored beverages for maintaining good health in the monsoon, and delicious.

Toward the end of our time in Kolkata, we got word of a cyclone named Komen on its way. This storm, which arrived on the Saturday morning of our departure, turned out to be the Monsoon Moment we would never forget. Water was rising on city streets, in some areas as high as people’s thighs. Would we make it to the airport without the car stalling?

Thanks to the elevation of our SUV and a calm driver, we made it to the airport without incident. Later we were horrified to learn that more than a quarter million people in the area were dislocated by flooding. About100 people drowned in Kolkata alone, and many more in rural areas.

Even though it had been just two weeks, my family and I felt like monsoon veterans by the time our Jet Airways flight landed in Mumbai. Maharastra’s capital city, formerly known as Bombay, is located on the southwest coast, so it gets hit hard like big cities near water. Mumbai’s people had suffered a week of very heavy flooding in June, forcing the temporary shutdowns of the train system and closing businesses and schools. But we’d come after the water had drained out. It was August, and the rain clouds were almost gone. Staying in the peaceful Bandra Bandstand neighborhood on the edge of the Arabian Sea, we encountered many strong winds, but not so much rain. There was also the renewed pleasure of seeing rain on the water, all the while knowing the city was somewhere behind me.

I’d thought I just wanted to experience India’s monsoon once…but I don’t think that’s how it will turn out.


  1. Thanks, Sujata, for the wonderful "virtual vacation" in the monsoons! I've not read your books before, but just picked up the Kindle edition of The Salaryman's Wife. Sounds like a good read.

  2. Wonderful, Sujata. Been to Kerala before but not in monsoon time - now I feel like we'll 'visit' in your next book :)

  3. Sujata, until you got to the killer part at the end, the monsoon rains were sounding very romantic. I look forward to the book and seeing how the rain "comes through" the pages.

  4. Hey Everett, new readers are the BEST. Visit me on my website to direct email if you have any questions and comments about The Salaryman's Wife. There's a rainy season in Japan as well, which is mostly "mushiatsui" (lovely word that means hot and humi)

  5. Hey Annamaria, thanks for reading the blog post. Right now I'm writing about rain in England. It's feeling cold and hard and gray and something to run away from. Interesting how something that's a literary cliche is different everywhere.

  6. I went out with a woman from Assam many year ago, She said they often got 500 - 600 inches of rain in the monsoon. She said it rained so hard that it was painful to walk in it.

  7. Hi Sujata. Wonderful evocative post. As a piece of trivia, when the rights and the machine tools for the old Morris Oxford were sold to India, the car carried on into production as the Hindustan Ambassador with only one minor change. Instead of the windscreen wipers having the speeds 'slow' and 'fast' instead they had 'fast' and 'monsoon'.

    1. The Ambassador/Morris Minor is the only car large enough to handle our luggage in India!

  8. Sujata, this was great to read. I was able to get vivid images of the monsoon you experienced in different cities. There are some special food preparations during the rainy season. Hope you were able to try some of them.

  9. By the way, it is me, Manju, who has this blog titled Another Perspective. Set it up a while ago, but now will be free to write in it.

  10. Great post, Sujata, I enjoyed hearing about your adventures in the monsoon.

  11. Great post, Sujata, I enjoyed hearing about your adventures in the monsoon.

  12. Wow, Sujata, what a wild family vacation! I have never before been interested in seeing India during the monsoons, but now....

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